by Greg DePalma
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-11)
After coming off their first winning season since 2010 and with many experts touting them as a sleeper Super Bowl pick, there were big expectations for the Buccaneers in 2017. But after starting the season 2-1 and nearly defeating the defending Super Bowl champs on a Thursday night at home, the season began to slowly slip away. By the midway point of the season the Bucs were riding a five-game losing streak (2-6) and QB Jameis Winston was on the shelf from a shoulder injury he originally sustained against Arizona during a Week 6 contest. Winston returned after missing three games, but overall he lost eight straight starts until leading the Bucs to an upset victory in the season finale at home over the NFC South Champs. The win over New Orleans was ultimately bittersweet though as the Buccaneers would once again end up in last place and miss the post-season for a 10th consecutive year.
Following another disappointing season, many Buccaneer fans were expecting to see big changes from either the front office or the coaching staff. Instead, G.M. Jason Licht received a 2018 extension while Dirk Koetter remained the head coach. There are some who believe Koetter was retained because Winston played his best football following the injury and that a coaching change could very well impede that progress moving forward.
If Tampa Bay fans were upset about having Licht and/or Koetter still in control of their favorite team, they were just as angry and possibly more so to see Defensive Coordinator Mike Smith return. Smith’s ‘17 defense ranked last in the NFL in sacks, 3rd-down stops and yards-allowed-per-game. The Bucs defense also struggled to hold onto late leads by blowing three games with under three minutes remaining.
So Licht, Koetter and Smith will all get one more season to make things right at One Buccaneer Place. Because no matter the circumstances - including another major assortment of player injuries - this is it. They’ll be no more second chances. It’s time for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to play post-season football once again. In other words, it’s time to produce or else.
Key Free Agents
CB Brent Grimes
CB Robert McClain
DT Clinton McDonald
RB Peyton Barber (ERFA)
RB Charles Sims
S TJ Ward
TE Cameron Brate (RFA)
WR Adam Humphries (RFA)
Cap space ranking/amount
QB…The 1st overall pick in 2015, Jameis Winston, will enter the 2018 season looking to jumpstart his career and the Tampa Bay franchise. Winston has all the talent in the world to become a great player, but what appears to be holding him back isn’t going anywhere next season as Dirk Koetter returns for a third season as his head coach and a fourth running the offense. Winston is generally the same player we’ve seen since his rookie year in 2015, which doesn’t say a whole lot about the coaching he’s received since turning pro. On top of that, the Bucs now have to hold their collective breath that Winston’s recent involvement with a female Uber driver who claims Winston groped her, won’t become a distraction on and off the field. Don’t forget that back at Florida State, Winston was involved in a sexual assault claim that was eventually settled following a lawsuit. Throw in the recent shoulder injury and his continued interception issues (69/44 ratio) and no one knows for sure what to expect out of Winston for the 2018 season.
Back-up Ryan Fitzpatrick did what he does best as he won two of three games in Winston’s absence. Fitzpatrick is a free agent and should be re-signed. It would also behoove the Bucs to take a long look at one of the mid-round QBs in the draft as a precaution in case the worst possible outcome with Winston is realized.
RB…This is a major area of concern with two-time 1,400-yard rusher Doug Martin most likely on his way out of town following consecutive 400-yard seasons. Martin did not respond the way the team had hoped when he returned from a four-game PED suspension to start the season and then missed another game for violating team rules. He can save the team $20 million over the next three years if he’s cut. The rest of the unit was such a disappointment that little known Peyton Barber led the team with 423 yards rushing and a 3.9 average. Jacquizz Rodgers also failed to follow up on a good first season with the club while once promising Charles Sims can’t get back on track following two injuries in four seasons that forced him to miss 19 games. Sims was a strong contributor in 2015 when he caught 51 passes and gained over 1,000 yards from scrimmage. He was the team leader for RBs in snaps this past season, but a non-factor overall with just 56 touches.
Licht has some big decisions to make here and must determine how much blame in the running game should fall upon the backs vs. the weak offensive line. If he wants to add a superstar talent to the backfield, Saquon Barkley is within his reach, but he won’t be falling down to 7th overall so he’d have to move up and get him. Of course Licht can also use one of his early-round picks to add a player like Nick Chubb, Ronald Jones, Sony Michel or Rashaad Penny. He could also try and steal a sleeper like Justin Jackson a bit later.
TE…The Bucs have one of the top tight end pairs in the league and there’s no reason to think that will change anytime soon. First-round pick OJ Howard had a typical up and down rookie season that included fumbles and porous run blocking. But Howard has tremendous talent and it would be surprising if he didn’t breakout as early as next season. Four-year vet Cameron Brate has turned into a solid red-zone threat with 14 TDs over the past two years and clearly outperformed Howard in every offensive statistical category except TD receptions - both players scored six times - even though Howard played more snaps.
WR…This is another area of strength even though the DeSean Jackson signing failed to cash in this past season. Jackson could not develop chemistry with Winston while receiving no help from Koetter or coordinator Todd Monken. The former Eagle and Redskin totaled his lowest average per reception (13.4) of his career even though he was second on the team in targets (90) and yards (668). Jackson and No. 1 Mike Evans both had poor catch percentages that ultimately helped to doom the overall production of the offense. Evans barely eclipsed the thousand-yard mark (1,001) for a fourth straight season. If the Bucs are going to scare the opposition with their offense, Evans must lead the way.
Licht did hit the mark when he selected former Penn State star WR Chris Godwin in the 3rd-round last year. Godwin was basically the No. 4 receiver on this team, but he did show enough in his opportunities for everyone to feel strongly that both he and Evans will make a great outside duo in Tampa Bay for years to come. The reason Godwin failed to receive more playing time was due to the fact that fan favorite, Adam Humphries, continues to defy logic. The former Clemson Tiger went undrafted in 2015 after totaling just 1,097-yards over a four-year college career. But over the past two seasons with the Bucs, Humphries has gained 1,253-yards on 116 receptions. He was second on the team in receptions this past season (61) and had the top catch percentage on the team as well at 73.5%.
OL…Outside of center Ali Marpet, a former DIII standout at left tackle who’s become one of the top young pivot-men in the league, the Bucs have present and future issues everywhere else along the offensive line including at tackle. That’s because their top lineman, right tackle Demar Dotson, turns 33 in October and is coming off a season-ending knee injury that forced him to miss the final five games last season while left tackle Donovan Smith continues to disappoint, no matter how much the team tries to spin his performance to date. Smith is just not living up to the hype as Dan Shonka warned about in his 2015 player write-up. Therefore, Licht needs to be diligent by adding two starting caliber tackles to the roster this off-season in the event that Dotson starts losing his grip fast and Smith fails his final test.
The Bucs are also very weak inside at guard with part-time vet Evan Smith penciled in at one spot as the team’s best temporary option right now. Smith turns 32 in July and is better suited as a backup, as is Joe Hawley. Right guard JR Sweezy was a failed Seattle lineman who has fared no better with the Bucs and should not be given another shot here, especially since the team can save $12 million over the next three years by cutting him loose. Two former 5th-round picks, left guard Kevin Pamphile and right tackle Caleb Benenoch, both have been given a chance to start with Pamphile receiving 29 starts over the past two seasons. But neither player has developed to this point and can be trusted to start again in 2018.
If former Notre Dame OG Quenton Nelson were still available for the Bucs at No. 7 overall, Licht needs to think long and hard about selecting the player expected to be the top lineman in the upcoming draft.
DE…This is where the Bucs have to find some players, especially for their non-existence pass rush. The biggest issue with Licht’s draft history has been his inability to land any elite-level edge rushers, which for a team that plays a 4-3 base is inexcusable. A matter of fact, Licht has only selected one defensive lineman before the 7th-round in four years running the draft here. On the flip side, I believe Licht has done a great job in negotiating contracts. Almost every deal he signs leaves the team with very little dead cap space on the books and that’s a shrewd business mind. Because how many other franchises suffer from poorly drawn-up deals that end up crippling their future teams?
As far as the current depth chart is concerned, the defensive line is very talented, just not where the Bucs need it the most. Robert Ayers has performed really well over the past several seasons, but he’s coming off a season where he posted just two sacks and he turns 33 in September. Even though 2016 2nd-round pick Noah Spence played with a torn labrum as a rookie, he still registered 5 ½ sacks and was expected to make a big jump in year-two. But Spence, who has dislocated his shoulder four times since turning pro, was relegated to just six games this past season before finally landing on IR. Spence by the way is the only lineman Licht has ever drafted before the 7th-round. William Gholston has 44 starts over the last four years and is a very strong run defender who offers little to no pass rush, while Ryan Russell and Will Clarke are just rotational back-ups.
DT…Gerald McCoy is an elite player who led the Bucs in sacks (6) and tackles-for-loss (9). He‘s been one of the top interior defenders in the league for years now. Clinton McDonald is a solid inside penetrator who ranked second on the team with five sacks and he’s expected to be re-signed, while Chris Baker needs to be shoved out the door as fast as humanly possible. Baker was a bust in his first season in Tampa and can save the team close to $10 million over the next two years if Licht cuts him loose.
LB…Lavonte David is quite possibly the most underrated linebacker in football. He’s coming off another great season while leading the team in tackles (101), forced fumbles (5) AND recoveries (5). A pair of former LSU linebackers, Kwon Alexander and Kendell Beckwith, fill out this three-man starting unit. Alexander is a full-time player who can be used anywhere in the scheme. He was second on the team in tackles with 97 and also picked-off a team-tying three interceptions. Due to injuries to both David and Alexander, Beckwith was forced into action far earlier than expected. He had some fine moments overall and ranked second in the NFL in rookie tackles.
Top back-up Adarius Glanton suffered a gruesome leg injury late in the season against Atlanta. His health status for next season is up in the air right now. Fellow back-ups Devante Bond and Cameron Lynch along with Glanton are also key special team players.
Thanks to David this is an above-average unit, but neither Alexander nor Beckwith are old-school run stuffing middle linebackers, something this team can really use.
CB…The Bucs drafted Vernon Hargreaves 11th overall in 2016 with the idea that he would be a franchise shutdown corner. After a promising rookie season there was no reason to believe he wouldn’t be up to the task, but something happened that precipitated a benching to nickel-back duties and not long after Hargreaves was placed on IR following a hamstring injury suffered against the Jets in Week 10. The Bucs now have to figure out why his play declined as much as it did and get him back on the fast track, because as well as Brent Grimes played in his second-year with the team, he’ll turn 35 before next season and his level of play should start to decline sooner rather than later. Nickel-back Robert McClain took over for Hargreaves on the outside, but that’s not where he’s at his best.
Top back-up Ryan Smith played safety as a rookie, but moved back to his more natural corner spot this past season and ended up with 10 starts. He was chosen a bit higher in the draft (4th-round in 2016) than expected and has a ways to go to justify Licht’s decision. Nickel-back Javien Elliott is a nice underdog story who walked-on at Florida State with very little playing experience. He now finds himself getting snaps in the NFL after serving on the team’s practice squad last year before cracking the roster late and then holding onto a roster spot again in year-two.
This is a position with two important questions. How much longer can Grimes play near an elite level and will Hargreaves return to form? That’s why Licht will need to add some insurance here either through free agency or the draft.
S…The Bucs are is decent shape at safety thanks to last year’s 2nd-round pick Justin Evans and veteran Chris Conte. Evans has the talent to become a key player for the long-term while Conte supplies a good veteran presence for the short-term. Keith Tandy has played a lot of football for the Bucs since being drafted in 2012, but he’s no more than a back-up and special team’s performer at this point in his career. Former Pro-Bowler TJ Ward was signed after being cut in Denver before the season started, but he never felt comfortable with his role and didn’t receive enough playing time as far as he was concerned. So don’t expect him to return.
The secondary can work out just fine with Evans and Conte starting at safety next season, but Licht will need to add more depth here before next season begins.
The place-kicking situation in Tampa has been mostly a nightmare since Connor Barth’s career-season in 2011. Nick Folk was signed in the off-season to add a veteran with experience in nailing clutch kicks, but he lasted just four games until a knee injury sent him to the sidelines for good. Former Bucs kicker Patrick Murray returned from a two-year absence and was perfect from 39-under with three misses overall. Since Licht won’t be using draft picks again on kickers anytime soon, expect to see another veteran kicker added to the roster to battle Murray in camp. The punting situation was very disappointing after Bryan Anger’s successful first season with the club in 2016. Anger’s biggest failure came when his net punting percentages dropped from third in the league (42.7) to 26th (39.5). Licht can save the team $13 million over the next four years by letting Anger go.
Top kick returner Jacquizz Rodgers and top punt returner Bernard Reedy were both bottom of the barrel performers. Reedy has already moved on to New England.
This is a unit that can use a complete transformation.
Then again, so did the coaching staff and nothing happened to them?
If I were the Buccaneers G.M.
First of all, I agree with what I hear from Jason Licht that his top priority will be to re-sign his own key free agents first. Since the Bucs have a good cap situation, they can afford it. As far as any deals outside the organization go, unless a Demarcus Lawrence (Dallas) or an Ezekiel Ansah (Detroit) were to become available, I don’t expect Licht to spend significant cash on foreign players during the off-season.
Now as far as the draft goes, the first thing I would do is find out how much it would cost to move up and select either RB Saquon Barkley or DE Bradley Chubb. If I can’t work out a reasonable deal to move up and both players are gone by time I pick at No. 7, I would select either DB Minkah Fitzpatrick or OG Quenton Nelson.
Additionally, if the QBs don’t get gobbled up as quickly as I expect and my top four targets are gone, then I would have select the top edge rusher left on my draft board.
Tune in to the Ourlads’ Football Radio Network for more in-depth details of every team on free agency and the draft with special guest analysts including Ourlads’ G.M. and National Scout, Dan Shonka, on such programs as Ourlads’ Guide to the 2018 NFL Draft.
For the record
The Bucs have not made the playoffs since 2007.
The Bucs have not won a post-season game since capturing Super Bowl XXXVII during the 2002 season.
The Bucs have finished in last place six of the last seven years.